Federal Court Rules Gulf Recreational Red Snapper Management Broken

March 27, 2014
Matt Smelser, (202) 572-3272, msmelser@edf.org

(WASHINGTON – March 27, 2014) The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has ruled in favor of a group of Gulf of Mexico commercial fishermen in a case against the Department of Commerce over its long-standing mismanagement of the region’s prized red snapper fishery.

Below is a statement from Pamela Baker, Director of the Gulf of Mexico region for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program:

“The court’s ruling in the Guindon v. Pritzker case confirms that federal management of the Gulf’s red snapper recreational fishery is broken and punishes sportsmen and the local seafood industry alike. After years of short and unpredictable fishing seasons, which frustrate anglers and allow too many fish to be killed, the judge decided that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) violated the law and failed to pursue management options that can work better and ensure continued recovery of the red snapper population.

“Several years ago commercial red snapper fishermen faced similar frustrations with NMFS’ broken regulations. A successful overhaul of commercial fisheries management has helped keep red snapper in seafood counters year-round, while fishermen comply with limits and contribute to conservation. The court’s decision makes crystal clear that the time is now for similar transformational change in management of the recreational sector.

“The way to avoid shorter recreational seasons and ensure long-term conservation is for the agency to roll up its sleeves, bring together Gulf fisheries stakeholders, and immediately start work to overhaul recreational management. NMFS should now lead a process to guide stakeholders, potentially engaging credible mediators if necessary, toward a common vision and practical solutions that benefit fishermen, communities and the fish population.

“The good news is that countless reform ideas have already been put forward by Gulf anglers, conservationists, charter captains, seafood providers and others. EDF is committed to playing its part to make those ideas a reality. A ‘business as usual’ response to this judgment—one that keeps a discredited management system in place and further shortens the recreational season—would represent a complete failure to learn the real lessons of the ruling.”

Additional summary and analysis on the ruling:

On using short seasons to manage the fishery: The federal fisheries law (the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) section 407(d)) requires the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to set and enforce recreational and commercial fish landing quotas and manage them for the public benefit. For the recreational fishery, NMFS’s misguided system uses ever-shorter seasons to control landings, which fail year after year and frustrate fishermen. Judge Rothstein concluded that the 2013 recreational red snapper seasons violated the law, noting that NMFS does not have “a license to engage in Einstein’s definition of folly – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

On using the best scientific information: Judge Rothstein held that NMFS’ decision to disregard recent and improved data in favor of projections could not be squared with National Standard 2, which requires the agency to use the best available science. The court concluded that “‘Superior or contrary data’ is precisely what NMFS ignored” in this case.

On long-term conservation: NMFS defied National Standard 4, according to Judge Rothstein: “When an agency blinds itself to the high likelihood that its actions will cause overharvesting, the Court cannot characterize those actions as reasonably calculated to promote conservation” as required by law. The court also declared that NMFS’ reliance on “a dogged belief that somehow 2013 would be different than previous years defies logic” and did not meet statutory standards.

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